Rhythm, Language & Genetics Group (PI: Gordon)

Current research areas in the Rhythm, Language & Genetics Group (directed by Dr. Gordon)


Genetic architecture of rhythm 

We know from family-based studies that rhythm traits (and musicality more generally!) are heritable, but the genetic markers of rhythm had not yet been studied in a well-powered population sample. Our ongoing series of genome-wide interrogation studies utilizes large-scale genome-wide association approaches and post-GWAS analyses to understand the genetic architecture of rhythm ability (see https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/836197v1). 

Primary collaborators: Lea Davis, Maria Niarchou, Nancy Cox, Dan Gustavson, Nori Jacoby

Genetic discovery requires large-scale data and multi-site collaborations! Dr. Gordon is thus also working towards co-founding a new consortium on the genetics of musicality with Henkjan Honing and Simon Fisher. A precursor Colloquium on this topic took place in June 2019 in Amsterdam. 


Exploring genetic pleiotropy between musicality, language, and other health + cognitive traits

One major focus of our current work is to investigate hypothesized pleiotropy (shared genes) between rhythm and language traits (specific predictions are laid out in the Atypical Rhythm Risk Hypothesis paper, Ladanyi, Persici, et al., in press). We are exploring whether individuals with biomarkers for poor rhythm are at increased risk for developmental speech and language disorders. We are very interested in neural endophenotypes (ERPs, oscillatory networks, and spatially localized brain activity) that might mediate relationships between music and language.

Primary collaborators: Simon Fisher and Else Eising (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics)

We are also investigating genetic relations between musicality and verbal ability using twin modeling (collaborations with CATSlife study - Dan Gustavson; and Swedish Twin Registry: Laura Wesseldijk, Miriam Mosing, and Fredrik Ullén). 

Our first rhythm genomic study also turned up novel associations between rhythm and several other cognitive and health-related traits (processing speed, hand grip strength, lung function, chronotype, and tinnitus). We will continue to explore underlying pleiotropy and epidemiological associations between these traits and rhythm.


Developmental Language Disorder

Children with developmental language disorder (DLD) experience life-long difficulties with communication skills (grammar and vocabulary are particularly affected). DLDandme.org is a great resource for learning about this often missed or misunderstood condition! We have recently developed a new algorithm, APT-DLD, for identifying cases of DLD in electronic health records (Walters, Nitin et al., in revision); we hope that this tool facilitates large-scale discovery of the biology underlying DLD. We have several studies using epidemiological and human genetics approaches to better understand the origins and co-morbidities of DLD. 

Primary collaborators: Stephen Camarata, Piper Below, Doug Shaw, Nancy Cox, and Simon Fisher

With a great many additional collaborators, we are also testing the Atypical Rhythm Risk Hypothesis for DLD and other developmental speech-language disorders, using behavioral, neural, and genetic methods!


Rhythmic Priming 

Can exposure to rhythmically regular musical sequences influence language task performance? Prior work in children with typical development, children with DLD, and children with dyslexia suggests that listening to music with strong metrical structure influences grammar task performance (grammaticality judgements). Through ongoing work with Barbara Tillmann’s lab in Lyon, France (http://crnlgerland.univ-lyon1.fr/spip.php?article89) and the BIL group at the University of Milan-Bicocca (http://www.bilgroup.it/en/home-2/), we are extending this line of research to other language tasks, such as relative clause processing and sentence repetition. Eventually, we hope to integrate rhythmic priming into a speech-language therapy clinical trial, considering that rhythmic exposure might boost traditional therapeutic activities for children with DLD.


Neural entrainment and individual differences in rhythm and grammar skills in children 

Dr. Gordon and collaborators discovered a correlation between musical rhythm perception and expressive grammar skills (see https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/desc.12230 and https://nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/nyas.12683).

Our ongoing line of research further investigates this association by examining neural variables (EEG) and cognitive variables (working memory, sensitivity to prosody) that might be driving the relationship between rhythm and grammar abilities.

Primary collaborators: J. Devin McAuley, Sonja Kotz, Anna Fiveash, Barbara Tillmann, Stephen Camarata


Rhythm + Reading

Do neural entrainment to the speech envelope and prosodic sensitivity explain individual differences in reading ability? Our new NSF-funded project looks at prosody and reading from neural, behavioral, and genetic perspectives! We are currently recruiting a postdoctoral fellow for this project – see https://www.vumc.org/music-cognition-lab/new-several-open-postdoctoral-positions for more information.

Primary collaborators: Cyrille Magne, Piper Below, Nicole Creanza


Integrating biomarkers of rhythm to predict language development and risk for developing speech-language disorders

If a child or their parents have atypical rhythm ability, do they have an increased risk for developmental speech and language disorders? The “Family Games” series of longitudinal and cross-sectional studies, funded by Dr. Gordon’s NIH Director’s New Innovator grant, integrates many diverse biomarkers (including infant rhythm perception measured with EEG, parental rhythm skills, and genetic risk of rhythm deficits) as potential predictors of individual differences in language skills and likelihood of speech-language disorders. These lines of research may eventually lead to new screening methods.

Primary collaborators: Miriam Lense, Tiffany Woynaroski

We are also testing predictions of the Neural Commitment Theory, in which infant speech perception is examined as a potential predictor of childhood language skills, in collaboration with Christina Zhao and Pat Kuhl at University of Washington.


Neurodevelopmental genetic disorders: Williams Syndrome

Our ongoing work in individuals with Williams Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental genetic disorder characterized by cognitive impairment, hypersociality, and affinity for music, examines musical phenotypes in this very interesting population.

Collaborators: Miriam Lense, Elisabeth Dykens, Alexandra Key


N.B. Non-exhaustive list of outside collaborators for each research area does not generally include current lab members, who tend to be involved in several research projects in parallel!